Diner (1982)
Warner Home Video
Cast: Steve Guttenberg, Daniel Stern, Mickey Rourke, Kevin Bacon, ellen Barkin
Extras: Documentary, Theatrical Trailers

For many of us, the passage from youth to adulthood is difficult at best. By the time we’re expected to become responsible adults we’ve become so accustomed to the rituals of adolescence that we resist leaving the comfort of our chosen family of friends. Like a second birth, it’s a painful but wonderful time, and one that provides a rich tableau for Barry Levinson’s delightful 1982 film, Diner, new to DVD.

Diner takes place in Baltimore during the last week of 1959. The date is significant as the end of innocence: the Eisenhower era was coming to a close, Kennedy and the turbulent ’60s were right around the corner. And for the main characters in this movie, childhood has ended whether they like it or not. Still in their early 20s, these young men are struggling to come to grips with the changes that adulthood brings, such as responsibility, direction, and culpability.

There is no single, linear plotline, per se; what Levinson gives us is a series of interconnected events with the characters inevitably coming back to congregate in the safe womb of the local diner. It’s here that they come for food, discussion, smiles, and most importantly, commiseration about the world outside. If there is a main event at the heart of everything, though, it is the pending marriage of Eddie (Steve Guttenberg) in a week’s time. A virgin, Eddie is fearful of missing out on the possibilities of the future, fearful of his lack of expertise. He is unsure about the marriage and has created a loophole: his fiancé, Elyse, must take a 140 question football quiz…oral, so there can’t be any cheating…or the marriage is off. The test itself is one of the highlights of the film; friends and family mill about the basement, eavesdropping and keeping score while Eddie grills the poor woman behind a closed door. We never see the face of Elyse; she remains the faceless unknown of the future. His character is the reference point of young men on the cusp of maturity.

Counterbalancing Eddie is Shrevie, (Daniel Stern), who is married, to Beth (Ellen Barkin), though he still spends much of his time hanging out with the guys. There is little communication between them and their marriage is in trouble. A major flare-up occurs because she played some of his records and didn’t put them back into the anally categorized slots that he so carefully created. He complains that she doesn’t understand how much his records mean to him; the music surely, but also the minutiae of artist, category, year, and even label color. These details are touchstones of his youth, and he grips them for dear life as the future threatens to drown him.

The other characters’ threads are deftly woven into the film’s tapestry: Boogie (Mickey Rourke) is a hustler, a dreamer who is always working on a woman or a bet. His reckless wagering gets him in over his head with a bookie and provides the funniest scene of the movie as he bets his friends that he can entice a girl on their first date to a certain level of intimacy. His creative use of a box of popcorn is hilarious. Billy (Tim Daly), visiting from college, is faced with the decision of what to do with a friend who became pregnant during their one and only night of passion. Unfortunately, his love for her is not reciprocated. Fenwick (Kevin Bacon) is a privileged underachiever who has the brains to do whatever he wants but can’t find direction for his energies. And Modell (Paul Reiser), the least seen of the group, is always good for a witty observation, though he himself seems bewildered by the world ("You know what word I don’t get? Nuance…").

The talented cast of Diner was largely unknown in 1982. Each of them gives a fine performance, but the whole is even greater than the sum of its impressive parts and it is the ensemble that is the true star of this movie. Barry Levinson chose this cast from over 600 actors and it is a testament to his eye for talent that everyone went on to notable careers. Putting them up in a hotel in Baltimore, he purposely let them live together a bit before getting around to rehearsing. The result is a tight, tangible group dynamic that creates an atmosphere of intimate friendship and, of equal importance, history.

Though this was Levinson’s first film as director, repeated viewings reveal a very assured sense of storytelling. He employs subtle, fluid camera work and motion within the frame to immerse us in his world. The result is depth of space, enhanced character interaction, richness of detail. And occasionally a gorgeous shot at dawn or twilight that is worthy of a postcard. The screenplay, which he wrote, was nominated for Best Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen. Despite the fact that he let his actors improvise during rehearsals, most of what is up on the screen is part of the script, and it is delightful.

This print of Diner is presented in a matted, enhanced <$PS,widescreen> format. The aspect ratio isn’t listed but is approximately 1.66:1 by my measurement. The print is basically very clean, with excellent compression, though there are some occasional scratches. Some of the night shots lose a bit of detail in the shadows, but the problem seems to be in the source print rather than the transfer. Colors are crisp with no bleeding; there is a scene in front of a church with a stained glass window in the background that is a great reference point for the <$chroma,chroma noise>… the colors on the glass were sharp and detailed. Considering that the film is 20 years old, it looks as good it can without an all out restoration.

Sound is a <$DD,Dolby Digital> mono track and is just fine. This is a movie with an excellent, evocative sound track full of 50s rock and roll and R&B, and a stereo remix would have been nice, but in the end is not necessary. We get the sound as the characters in the movie so often did, without reengineering… like listening to an old car radio, though much clearer.

The included extras are a pleasure for a disk that isn’t an "Extra Special One Of A Kind Collectors Edition" or the like. The main attraction is a new documentary, Diner: on the Flip Side, which is most of the major stars (Mickey Rourke is conspicuously absent) and Barry Levinson reminiscing about their experiences during the production. Fun and offering some good insights, it’s much like the movie; similar to sitting with friends and hearing various perspectives about a shared experience. The "All-New Introduction" by the director is simply cuts from the documentary placed before the film and is not skippable, though I found that I could fast-forward past it. There are 2 trailers, text regarding Levinson’s "Baltimore Films" which is informative, and an unnecessary page showing a list of major characters. The only real disappointment is the lack of a commentary, especially given that so many of the actors seemed to enjoy talking about the film. But again, considering that this disk can be found for less than $20, who’s complaining?

The pleasures of Diner are varied and wonderfully familiar. They are the pleasures of passing time in good company; fantasizing, philosophizing, exaggerating, prodding, and above all, laughing. Warner Brothers has presented us with a nice value in this package; there are several interesting extras along with a solid transfer of a good print. For fans of the movie or newcomers curious about the bill of fare, this is a terrific disk to own. Come in, order some fries with gravy, and hang out a while. It’s a place you’ll want to revisit.